Wednesday, January 31, 2007

You knew I wouldn't be able to resist...

I'm a movie nerd. And I'm loving my movie nerdery site here, but with assholes jumping into the presidential race like burning midgets into a kiddie pool, I'm feeling an intense need to indulge in my first nerdist impulse: political jag-offery. As such, I'm posting the first of what will likely be a monthly series of candiate handicapping. I will rank the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (those who have official announced candidicacies or have formed 'exploratory committees') according to the likelihood that they'll get the nomination of their respective parties. The rankings will likely shift wildly as events unfold. Bear in mind, for all the fun of political horseracing, the American political system is a sham. Both parties are parties of capital and empire. Their only real disagreements are how to most effectively to keep the herd in line.


1. Barack Obama: He's got the momentum, he's got the Oprah endorsement, he's got a pipeline to money and a facebook army ready to carry out his will. Plus, the media has a McCain-sized crush on him, which helps a lot.

2. John Edwards: Escaped the '04 Kerry fiasco unscathed, has high favorable ratings and a coherent, resonant message, strong endorsement by unions could be a key to turning out voters in early primaries, has staked a strong claim on the Iowa caucus.

3. Hillary Clinton: I really, really don't think she's going to get nominated: the media hates her, and that Iraq vote (and subsequent hawkishness) is going to kill her among primary voters, but she's going to have, like, a quadrillion dollars in her war chest and unparralleled name recogniction. She can't be dismissed, much as I'd like to.

4. Wes Clark: The national security candidate. If he's spent the last few years learning how to not sound like an idiot in public, he'll get some serious looks. Money will be an issue.

5. Bill Richardson: Hands down, the best resume of any Democrat, but he's got a giant chin-waddle, no name rec, and the charisma of a damp sponge. Still, if he can get some money, he'll make a serious push for Latinos and people looking for gravitas over style.

6. Chris Dodd: Boring old Senator with weirdly-colored eyebrows.

7. Joe Biden: Already a long shot before he said Barack Obama was the first "clean" black man to be a political figure.

8. Tom Vilsack: Being governor of Iowa gives you a chance to win the Iowa caucus, but that's about it. Also, John Edwards will probably end up winning Iowa anyway.

9. Dennis Kucinich: My favorite candidate, hands down, but not going to get it, as much as I love the scrappy representative that Stephen Colbert once called a "socialist garden gnome."

10. Mike Gravel: You shot who in the what now?


1. Newt Gingrich: This is more of a hunch than anything concrete. The frontrunners are so unpalpable to most base Republican voters (read: douchemongers) that I think Gingrich will bust onto the scene as a "true" conservative and steal the show.

2. Mike Huckabee: A similar strategy as Gingrich, but saddled with a lot less name recogniction and money, but still a comer.

3. Mitt Romney: Has the money and media attention. If he can convince the base that he really, really, really hates gays and loves fetuses, he'll walk to the nomination...provided the evangelicals don't flip out at his Mormon-ness.

4. John McCain: Most people have him as the front-runner, but I'm simply not buying it. The base thinks he's some kind of closet liberal (which he isn't), and his position on Iraq is the least popular one imaginable.

5. Sam Brownback: THE true-blue social conservative, hampered by low name rec and a pro-amnesty position on illegal immigration.

6-9. A bunch of assholes I've never heard of: Jim Gilmore (former Viriginia governor), Tom Tancredo (one-issue Mexican hater), Ron Paul (Texas libertarian), Duncan Hunter (war mongering House shitheel)

10. Rudy Guiliani: The fact that he's leading all polls of Republican candidates proves the pointlessness of polling this far away from the election. Sure, he singlehandely knocked United Flight 93 out of the air with his tumor-riddled cock, but he's pro-choice. I don't care if he calls a press conference and pulls Osama's head out of a bowling bag, he's pro-choice. He's pro-choice. Pro-choice. NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN.

America, you're begging for another 9-11attack.

Epic Movie? Seriously? Number one movie in the country with a 18.6 million dollar opening weekend? What the fuck is wrong with you people?!?! Didn't anyone notice during the trailer that this movie doesn't have any actual jokes in it? Having a guy dress up like Borat and say Borat's catch phrase is not humor. It says "Hey, remember that funny movie that came out four months ago? Here's a guy pretending to be him!"

What the hell kind of comic mind sits down and thinks: "Hey, you know that scene in Superman Returns when a bullet bounces off Superman's eye? Wouldn't it be hilarious if, instead, the bullet didn't bounce off his eye, like he was a normal person? Then, we could do a scene where Superman tries to use X-ray vision, but doesn't!"

Not only is this film a parade of pop culture references without any comedic context, it's not even true to it's stuper-tarded title. Epic Movie? In what way are Borat and Nacho Libre epic films? In no way. The only thing that connect the films being "parodied" (to drain any meaning from the term) is that they have all been released in the last eighteen months. That's the degree of respect the makers of this shit show towards their pudding-noggined audience: they couldn't reference Lord of the Rings or Spider Man or, god forbid, Star Wars because the cretinous fourteen year olds in the audience can't even remember what they had for breakfast, let alone a movie they saw more than one summer ago.

I mean, Christ, people! Epic fucking Movie? Bring on the dirty bombs, Al-Qaeda.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

As you all know, I'm a history nerd of epic proportions. For the most part, I approach history from a clinical point of view, learning about various historical events in order to get a better understanding about how we as a species got to where we are. Also to accumulate facts for use in conversation to remind my friends what an adorable smarty-pants I am. There is one subject, though, that gets me all misty and emotional. That's the Spanish Civil War. When I read about the anarchists putting down the military rising in Barcalona in May of 1936, or the spontaneous collectivization of Catalonia's industry and agriculture, I feel goosebumps. When I read about Lister's Communist cadres liquidating the collectives, or Nationalist scumbag Colonel Yague massacring republicans in the bull ring at Badajoz, tears well in my eyes. Unlike most of the wars, conquests and genocides that compose history, the Spanish Civil War involved the flowering, and destruction, of a genuine alternative to statist and capitalist exploitation and oppression. The closest thing I have to a hero on earth is the common anarchist militiaman of the CNT. This is all in the interest of full disclosure: I'm a mark for the subject matter of Pan's Labyrinth, and as such, my strong emotional reaction to parts of the movie are probably colored by my love of the Spanish republic and my hatred of Franco's Nationalists.

The fauns and faeries and demons, though....I'm not feeling it.

The "real world" story of the film, about Francoist soldiers hunting down the remnants of republican guerrilla resistance after the end of the Spanish civil war, was deeply affecting for me. Bear in mind that I'm predisposed to be moved by the subject matter. It features viscerally realistic battle scenes and a sustained but not overbearing sense of place. Sergei Lopez, who plays the monsterous Captain Vidal, is a living embodiment of Fascism in all it's self-mythologizing machismo. Also, credit sound effects editor Roland Thai for smartly emphasizing the most sinister noise of the 20th century: the creak of leather jackboots and a Sam Browne belt.

Unfortunately, the fairy tale that is interspersed throughout the civil war story, in which a young girl (the Captain's stepdaughter) must complete dangerous tasks in order to prove her identity to an ancient tree-creature, doesn't have the same impact. The fantasy set pieces sit awkwardly next to the realism, and the supposedly magical elements, the faeries, the giant toads, that dude with eyes in his hands from the cover of Fangoria, are rendered and presented in an oddly matter-of-fact way. The director, Guillermo Del Toro, rushes through his introduction of the fantasy elements, mythic creatures appearing before the eyes of the girl, pages of a book writing themselves, in an oddly off-hand fashion. When Pan, the tree-legged faun, first comes onto the screen, the camera doesn't linger over this supposedly fantastic creature in wonderment. He's almost instantly taken for granted. Coupled with the blank expression on the face of lead actress Ivana Baquero, this flat presentation undercuts any attempt to infuse the film with child-like awe or majesty. When Baquero does set off to complete her missions, they are brief, one-dimensional and generally suspense free, except for some scares courtesty of the Fangoria cover boy that feel rather contrived.

The two stories co-exist uneasily together for most of the movie, until Del Toro brings them together for a climax which makes the point that righteous choices will long outlive the unjust, petty rule of tyrants. The fairy tale provides some moving symbolism for this theme, but it's undercut by the general thinness of the fantasy world Del Toro attempts to create. The movie suggests a magical fantasy realm just beyond our sight, but doesn't flesh it out beyond the merest sketches for the majority of the film. So, when viewer finally gets to see a larger swath of this underworld at the end of the movie, instead of feeling moved, I was left thinking, where the hell did all these people come from?

Score: 7.8 (in an effort to Pitchfork-up this blog, I'm imposing a 10-point rating scale which will be retroactively applied to the rest of the movies already reviewed)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Funniest Book I Have Ever Read, and I'm not even half-way done with it.

I realize that, for a blog called "Worse than Hitler" I write a lot about things at are substantially better than Hitler. And the following is no exception. Bob Powers' book Happy Cruelty Day: Daily Celebrations of Quiet Desperation is a soul-blasting inferno of black humor and absurdity that cries out for recognition. It lists 365 alternative holidays to celebrate for each day of the year. For the most part, they end up being intensely dark short stories about terminally dysfunctional characters (always referred to in the present tense, second person singular) trying to scrape a fragment of happiness or validation together while caught between the grinding, merciless teeth of a cold, ravenous universe. The stories are rarely more than a page long, but the impact, both in comedic power and pure angst, lingers long after you've finished reading them. So far, my hands-down favorite is January 11th's "Fourteen Ways to Tell a Cajun Chef to Go Fuck Himself" Day, which is as funny as the title suggests, but also a strangely moving sketch of grief...and crawfish.

To illustrate my point, I'm posting one of the shorter entries, for my own birthday, September 29th: "Redefine Hell With Every Waking Moment of Your Life" Day:

"This has got to be as close to hell as you can get," you say from your shared cubicle, drenched with sweat from the crammed-to-the-ceiling subway ride you endured to get to work this morning. "I even feel a little shakey with longing for the substances to which I've grown addicted," you say aloud, proving you might also be losing a grip on your frame of mind. "And to top it all off, I have this nagging suspicion I'm going to die with a false sense of entitlement, owing to the innate talent I have always possessed but never applied to any project of real and obvious substance. This has gotta be the definition of hell, right?"

Just then, you'll be mouth-raped by an elderly man. "I stand corrected," you'll say.

Happy "Redefine Hell With Every Waking Moment of Your Life" Day!

(I hope this fucker doesn't sue me for reprinting this: I'm trying to move units, here!)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Upcoming Films that Give Me Antici-boners.*

Artsy-fartsy movies opening this weekend that I want to see:

Pan's Labyrinth: Dude, seriously, eye-handed monsters and the Spanish Civil War, together at last? I'm totally there.

Letters from Iwo Jima: Actually, I'll probably wait for Flags of our Fathers to come out on DVD and watch them back-to-back, as Jesus intended

Artsy-Fartsy movies opening soon that I want to see:

Black Book (March 9): I've always loved Paul Verhoeven. Unlike a lot of directors, he has a distinct ability to wed sleaze and mindless violence with effective satire and subversive thematics. This is the first film he's made in his native Holland in twenty years, and the subject matter, Jews evading Nazis during the occupation of Amsterdam, is super promising.

The Host (March 9): U.S. military experiments in Asia lead to the creation of a sea monster that could destroy mankind. No, it's not Godzilla, it's some sort of giant salamander or something, and it's in Korea, not Japan, and it's apparently really, really good.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (March 14): There are few nerdy topics I enjoy more than the Anglo-Irish War--the Spanish Civil War is one of them--, and even the thought of a bloody dramatization of that event done by the super-lefty British director Ken Loach that won the 2006 Palm d'Or brings me to the brink of nerd-gasm.

Sunshine (March 16): Danny Boyle has made a sci-fi movie about astronauts going to the sun. What else do you need to know?

Southland Tales (April): Apparently, this movie was been getting hammered at film festivals and is going under a drastic re-edit, but it's apocalyptic, and it's directed by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) so I still want to check it out.

Movies that should kick a whole lot of ass:

Zodiac (March 2): The real-life story of the never-caught Zodiac killer, directed by David Fincher. Hells, yeah.

300 (March 9): The trailer for this adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the battle of Thermopylae, alternately exhilerated and annoyed the hell out of me. I don't really know what to expect when I go see this one, but the truly remarkable look of the movie has me hoping for the best.

Grindhouse (April 6): Tarantino, Rodriguez, zombies, a trailer featuring the most awesomest dude-getting-hit-by-truck footage of all time, and zombies. Also, zombies. Yes.

Movies that I'm embarrassed I want to see:

Smokin' Aces (January 26): Simply writing those words should rightfully cause every person reading this to stop immediately and never come back to this sight. Yes, it's a big, stupid, overly-edited Tarantino-rip, ten years after Tarantino-rip offs became mindnumbling passe, but I have my reasons. Aside from zombies, there is one cinema plot element that I am drawn to like a monkey to masturbation: a bunch of different hitmen trying to kill the same guy. Yeah, it's stupid. Go to hell! I'm not on trial here!

The Hills Have Eyes 2: Last year's Hills Have Eyes remake was nasty, brutal and over the top in it's violence, so of course I want to see this one to find out if they filmmakers top themselves. I'm expecting full-on mutant baby rape (that's the rape of a baby by a mutant, not the rape of a mutant baby).

Shooter (March 16): Yes, it's a stupid action movie, but it's a stupid action movie based on a really good book that I read in high school.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (March 23): All the proof anyone could ever need of my stark inability to mature as a person.

Blades of Glory (March 30): Speaking of failure to mature, I know I should be over Will Ferrell by now, but I still think he's hilarious. His near-psychotic commitment to his characters is unparralleled in American comedy, and he's more likely than any of his comedic contemporaries to drop a sweaty load of left-field absurdism on the unsuspecting heads of his audiences.

More soon.

*: "Antici-boner" is a registered trademark of Worse than Hitler productions.

2006: Some of the Rest

Good movies:

Slither: A criminally underappreciated horror-comedy from the writer of the Dawn of the Dead remake, James Gunn. It's funny, it's disgusting (in the best possible way), and it's populated by characters who actually register as individuals. Most impressively, it parodies horror film tropes while still getting the most out of them in terms of shock value, but not in a precious, po-mo Kevin Williamson way. Plus, there are zombies. And alien slugs. Score: 8.4

V for Vendetta: embarrasinlgy earnest and more than a little naive, but damnit it this bastard doesn't get your average couch-bound would-be revolutionaries blood pumping. Score: 7.5

Inside Man: Sort of an "urban" Out of Sight, in that it's a genre exercise helmed by a director more well known for small, personal films. Just like Steven Soderbergh with Out of Sight, Spike Lee uses the familiar structure of the crime film to experiment with form, creating the kind of intelligent genre movie that are rare as hen's teeth in Hollywood. Most genre movies are directed by commerical/music video hacks or a Michael Bay acolytes. It goes to show that the right sensibility can breath life into the most tired of plot constructions. Score: 8.2

Casino Royale: Speaking of breathing life into tired plot constructions...rebooting the James Bond franchise was really the only thing to do. (I heard there was an invisible car in the last one) Daniel Craig brings the brutishness to the role that is too often missing. Bond is, after all, essentially an assassin, something it's easy to forget when Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan are flouncy about. My favorite thing about this movie: Bond fucks up a lot. It's supposed to be his first mission as a Double-Oh, and the filmmakers are smart to show him bungling things a bit. He's never comically incompetent, but he screws up more than a few times, even while pursuing a remarkably low-stakes mission for a Bond movie. That's a good thing, too, because you get the idea that, at this stage in his career, Bond couldn't save a bunch of money on his car insurance by switching to Geico, let alone the world. Score: 8.1

Little Miss Sunshine: Winner of the first annual Worse than Hitler Alexander Payne award for middlebrow failure-fest. Teeters on the edge of smaltz without falling over, and creates some affecting character sketches by Steve Carrell and Greg Kinnear. Score: 7.7

Idiocracy: Mike Judge's mean-spiritied satire about dumbed down consumer culture that was strangled in the cradle by Fox. The editing scars practically bleed off the screen, and the sloppy voice-over used to stich up the wounds chaffs like a bastard, but it's absolutely packed with jokes, the majority of which hit home. Also, it's got the year's best line of dialogue that is hilarious, but completely meaningless when said out of context: "But Brawndo's got what plants's got electrolytes!" See? Score: 8.0

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: There's some decent satire of NASCAR cracker culture buried under the ramshackle improv. It's more hit-or-miss than Anchorman, largely because there are fewer comedy set pieces, but when the hits come, they resonate. Isn't it time that we acknowledged the fact that Will Ferrell is similtaneously one of the top comedy actors in America, AND the country's foremost practitioner of absurdist humor. It makes you wonder what the millions of mouthbreathers who made this movie a hit thought of all those endless scenes of dimwit characters trading non sequiters. Score: 8.0

A movie that felt less like seeing a film than having a government-mandated immunization course, with five inch syringes:

The DaVinci Code Score: 2.0

A movie that felt less like seeing a film than having a government-mandated immunization course...but not unpleasant, neccesarily, you know, like that polio vaccine with the sugar cubes?:

Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man's Chest Score: 7.3

Movies that not only sucked, but were crushingly dissapointing, as well:

Lady in the Water: Words can't to justice to the monumental awfulness of this thing. M. Night Shamaylan's ego has officially seceeded from the union and declared itself a nuclear power. That he thought people would be able to abide the breathtakingly awkward storytelling in this thing boggles the mind. Score: 1.1

Superman Returns: Not as dissapointing as Lady in the Water, if only because I never liked Superman's boring ass in the first place, but still...damn. Makes Ang Lee's Hulk look like Batman Begins. Score: 4.0

2006 to be seens:

The Good Shepard
Half Nelson
Pan's Labyrinth
Letters from Iwo Jima
The Science of Sleep
Stranger than Fiction
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
The Black Dahlia
Last King of Scotland
The Good German
Miami Vice

Damn, I've got work to do.

Monday, January 15, 2007

# 1: Children of Men

Children of Men is the best film of the year (of those I've seen, anyway). It is also the best film I've seen this decade and, indeed, this century. It was seeing Children of Men, and having its images and ideas take up permanent residence in my brain that inspired me to start a movie blog in the first place. It's a movie that has energized me emotionally and intellectually...and writing this review is going to be torture. Part of the reason I'm nervous about writing about a movie I love this much is that any time you put your balls on the line in endorsing a movie, you risk looking like a dumbass to those friends of yours who think the movie in question sucks. Mostly, though, I'm afraid that my words aren't going to do the film justice. I' mean, you read that jet engine metaphor in my Departed review, right? Still, I'm going to do it: slap my balls on the line and defend my ardor for this film, which has already been lukewarmly received by dear friends of mine. I might not change any minds, but hopefully ya'll will understand where I'm coming from.

Alfonso Cuaron has managed to make a kind of movie that I have never seen before: a deeply political film that somehow avoids clunky exposition, rousing speeches, or other agenda-laden, uncinematic elements that detract from the storytelling. The film accomplishes this by an ingenious one-two manuever. It creates a fully-realized future earth, in which the horrors of the present day, from America's imperial jackbootery to general third world strife and privation, have moved from the periphery of the Western world to the center. Bombs exploded in coffee shops, detainees huddle in cages on train platforms while soldiers scream for passersby to look away, refugee camps teem with fanaticism, despair and violence. It's everything that makes us change the channel when we see it on television. The viewer is fully immersed in this nightmare world, reminded by the plot that they're watching a fiction, but reminded by the nature of the nightmare that it's a fiction only for those of us in the first world. Cuaron identifies the issues he seeks to address (aformentioned American imperial jackbootery and the death-by-neglect of the global south) by the details he highlights in his dystopia. That's par for the course in thoughtful science fiction. What makes Cuaron's film uniquely political while remaining intensely cinematic is that he makes his incitement to action, always the clunkiest part of any film with an agenda, transparent by immersing it within the character arc of the protagonist.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a jaded bureaucrat, a cog in the authoritarian machine that holds Britian together by force during a slow motion apocalypse brought about by world-wide infertility that has lasted eighteen years. He is a former activist who has had the idealism beaten out of him by personal tragedy and the unrelenting slide of humanity into red-clawed self-destruction and is now content to drink himself into oblivion and watch the world fall apart. A former lover played by Julianne Moore, who never lost her committment to radicalism, comes back into his life with a favor to ask, and begins drawing Theo out. First, his emotions are reawakened, in joyful and painful fashion. Later, those emotions spread outside of Theo's control, reaching outside of Theo, beyond the immediate circle of his loved ones, out to touch all of humanity. This new-found humanism pushes Theo to risk his life for something bigger than himself.

It's a fairly standard character arc: cynical bastard learns to believe again. Call it the Casablanca. What makes its use in Children of Men uniquely powerful is that it isn't simply the story of the cynical bastard. The cynical bastard is the audience-member. The horrors of the fictional dystopia are the horrors of the world around us. And the moral choice that Theo makes is the same one that Cuaron insists that we all confront: to accept the shared humanity of all the people of the world, or continue living a closed, hopeless existence. The film's climax is a jaw-dropping sequence in a refugee camp, filmed in a single, continuous shot as Theo and his companions attempt to escape a harrowing battle between refugees and soldiers. They are frail and vulnerable, caught between the hammer and tongs of state violence and desperate fanaticism. The extended single take has a dual effect. On a purely cinematic level, it gives the scene a sense of panoramic realism and unrelenting tension, like a hand slowly closing around the viewer's throat. With no cuts, no montage, there's no time to breath. Thematically, the shot serves to compress the viewer's identification with Theo to the point of a singularity. After watching the whole scene from a perch just over Theo's shoulder, there's no way for the viewr to seperate from the character. And so, by cinematic identification, Theo's awakening becomes the viewers awakening, Theo's dilemma becomes the viewers dilemma, and his choice becomes the viewers choice.

The one consistent criticism I've heard levied at Children of Men is that the goal Theo moves towards over the course of the film, smuggling a woman out of the country and onto a waiting boat, is vague and ill-explained. But the vagueness of Theo's goal is not just a piece of lazy plotting, it's crucial to the film's themes. Theo's mission is a metaphor for the challenge facing the first world citizen. Like Theo, we live in a world of inhumanity and injustice right outside our doors, like Theo we retreat from our responsiblities for this in cynicism. We point out that, while things are fucked up, there's no clear way to unfuck them. If the audience is meant to identify with Theo, they must also identify with his dilemma: why stick your neck out and risk your comfort or even your life fighting for a goal that you can't see and have no reason to believe will succeed? Were solutions to world problems readily apparent, there would be no excuse for inaction. In the film, Theo's cynicism is eventually overwhelmed by his awakening humanity and he pushes forward into a dangerous unknown, his only reassurance that he is acting for the right reasons. That is the sentiment that lingers as the film ends: lack of clear alternatives to injustice is not a justification for allowing injustice to continue unopposed. Not if you value humanity at least.

Damnit, I knew I'd fuck this up. This has been a poorly-thought out, poorly-written, and wholey unsatisfying attempt to explain why I nearly fainted after watching this movie. I guess I should just catalogue the emotions that were swimming throught my head as the credits rolled, tears welled in my eyes, and I started hyperventilating.

Garden-variety character empathy that usually accompanies a great film.

Unalloyed horror at the atrocities happening every day that are symbolized in the film.

Overpowering desire to make a difference.

Crushing despair and guilt at the knowledge that I won't.

Score: 10

Saturday, January 13, 2007

# 2: The Departed

er, I mean "The Depaaated."

It should have been a monumental clusterfuck: a Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong film (Infernal Affairs) that was less than five years old. What could be the point, other than take a perfectly good piece of Asian cinema and whiten it up to make it more "accessible" for the drooling rubes in malls across the U.S. You know, those folks who can't handle subtitles, because if they wanted to read, they'd buy a copy of Maxim? That sentiment was tempered a bit by the knowledge that Martin Scorsese was directing, but it's not like he's incapable of dropping a steaming load into the waiting maws of the American filmgoer. One way or another, I was looking forward to seeing "The Departed," but I was certainly bracing myself for the worst.

It turned out to be Scorsese's best movie since Goodfellas and perhaps his most purley entertaining to date. Using the can't-miss high concept behind Infernal Affairs gives Scorsese something that his films are usually sorely lacking in: a tightly constructed plot. Putting Scorsese's considerable skill at creating dynamic scenes and palpable atmosphere to the service of a compelling story is like dropping a jet engine into a...milk truck or, something...I don't the jet engine Scorsese or the plot? Whatever my lame metaphor might be, the point stands that the addition of Martin Scorese direction to tight plot equals a whole lot of awesome. With most Scorsese films, the propulsive energy that powers the first half hour or so ends up dissipating as the movie thrashes around for another two hours trying to find things for the characters to do while they snarl at each other and the camera whips around artfully. Here, the characters are always concentrating on the issue at hand, and their focus becomes the audiences, which means that the particular Scorsese frission that's always present at the onset of his films stays with you the whole way through.

Besides borrowing a plot from Hong Kong, the other genuis move of the filmmakers behind The Departed was the decision to set the film in South Boston's notoriously close-knit Irish community. While Scorsese is the unchallenged king of New York Italian mob movies, those characters: slicked-back black hair, shiny suits and gold chains, familiar "fuggetaboutit" accents and enduring love for "noodles and gravy" are stock characters at this point. By using a new city, a new accent, and a new ethnicity, Scorsese ensures that all of his carefully crafted atmospherics and knowing commentary on the clanish nature of white ethnic urban enclaves pops out at the viewer instead of becoming a by-now familiar ambient noise.

The palpable sense of place that Scorsese creates serves to give all of his characters fully-realized and believable context. The competing forces tearing at Leonardo DiCaprio's undercover cop and Matt Damon's undercover crook arise from their surroundings. DiCaprio is driven by a compulsion to prove his worth to his dead father, who came from a family of crooks and didn't want his son to follow in those footsteps. At the same time, the social structure of Southie, where Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello rules all that he surveys, rewards bold criminality and has its own sinister allure. It's that allure, not to mention the search for a father figure in Costello, that drives Matt Damon, a hot-shot State police detective, to risk his career to protect Frank. In Infernal Affairs (which is an hour shorter that The Departed), the characters often seemed to act largely out of a need for the plot to move forward. Here, every decision arises from the characters' environment.

All of this rich background, overlaying as it does familiar Scorsese themes of tribalism and nature of male relationships, is made complete by some outstanding performances. DiCaprio has been justly lauded for playing a character who seems to have magnets pulling him apart in every scene. Some people have knocked Nicholson for doing his usual schtick, but the theatricality of his mob boss makes sense for the character: he rules his criminal empire through dark charisma that ensures the loyalty of his awed underlings. Unlike the usual grandiose Nicholson performance, his work in The Departed lacks his trademark twinkle, that nod to the audience to let them know that he's enjoying himself as much as they're enjoying him. Costello is compelling, witty and powerful without being in any way charming. There's no knowing wink to suggest that his eyes are anything other than empty black pools.

In a way, Matt Damon's Colin Sullivan is even scarier than Costello. Unlike the mobster, Sullivan absolutely oozes charm, compulsively smoothing over every lie and crime with a smile and a slick handshake. That charm is part of the character's essential blankess. He is drawn to Costello because of Costello's power, a power he wants to be a part of, and, in time, possess himself. Sullivan's charm and blank but focused ambition suggest a self-control (and soullessness), that makes you think that he's the one character in the movie who could break out of Southie and get his hands on the levers of real power. What that, in turn, suggests about the nature of those who do rise to the top is readily apparent.

Score: 9.4

Friday, January 12, 2007

# 3: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat is on this list for much the same reason The Descent is: both accomplish something cinematically that is really, really hard to do and both pull it off in smashing style. The Descent is that rarest of rarities, a genuinely scary horror movie, and Borat is another giant panda in the Chinese highlands of cinema, a hilarious comedy.

I was stunned by the number of Borat reviews that spent most of their length debating the degree to which the movie was or was not an effective satire of American culture, or debating whether or not Sasha Baron Cohen was ethical in his approach, after having conceded in their opening paragraph that it was the funniest goddamn movie the reviewer had ever seen. How the hell can a film reviewer, who sees practically every film released during a given year, which means seeing every supposed comedy completely free of laughter released during a given year, gloss over the fact that Borat achieves comedic heights that EVERY SINGLE OTHER COMEDY FILM RELEASED THAT YEAR DIDN'T COME CLOSE TO ACHIEVING! There were some pretty good comedies released in 2006: Talladega Nights was funny, if not Anchorman-funny, and Idiocracy is both funny and unambigiously satirical, but in their combined run-times, they provoke fewer laughs than Borat does before Borat leaves for U S and A.

I don't need to go over what's funny about Borat. You've seen it, you laughed your asses off. My only point is that a well-sustained comedy is nearly impossible to pull off, and that by doing so, Borat deserves not only more "Year's Best" list mentions, but some fucking Oscar consideration.

Score: 9.3

# 4: The Descent

(Above: a mothafuckin' CHUD, but not a mothafuckin' CHUD from "The Descent." Those are way scarier)

The torture-fication of American horror films has been an interesting development over the past five years. Other than remakes of j-horror films and sequels to remakes of j-horror films, it seems that every American horror film made this decade has been a remake of a 70s grindhouse horror movie (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes) or an original (the Saw franchise, Hostel) united by a common thread: an extreme focus on the infliction of physical pain on young stars of shows on the CW network. These films are not without merit, and they raise questions about the cultural zeitgeist that could fuel more than a handful of post-graduate theses, but they universally suffer from a glaring deficiency: THEY AREN'T SCARY.

These movies do manage to prove a physical reaction in the audience: they make you squirm. But making an audience squirm is probably the easiest thing to do in film. Simply set up a two-shot of a couple of people, one tied to a chair, the other holding a pair of hedge clippers, slice off some latex fingers and ears, splash some Karo syrup around, and if the effect is realistic enough, it'll get the job done. Scaring an audience on the other hand, making them feel gooseflesh rise on their arms, making them nauseous with the question what's next? and having them leave the theater with nightmares waiting to hatch in their skulls, that's a tall order. That kind of effect is achieved only through a complex alchemy of film elements that is intensly rare. That's why I'm giving some mad-ass props to The Descent for being the down-right scariest film I've probably ever seen in a theater.

The filmmaker, a limey named Neil Marshall, gets his mojo from a dynamite setting (a West Virginia cave system), characters well-sketched enough to be distingushable, and a third-act villian (Mothafuckin' C.H.U.D.s!) that build off of each other on a pitch-perfect escalation of tension. The nausea, forboding and fear start creeping up on you long before the CHUDS show up, especially if, like me, you're a touch claustraphobic. The protagonists, a bunch of female spelunkers, get lost in an unnavigatable labyrinth, forced to flail around for exits with little sense of where they are at any given moment. The fear of the characters seeps into the audience, the intra-personal tension builds, the question of what the fuck is going to happen? becomes more and more pressing, until the CHUDS show up, and the rubber band of escalating anxiety snaps in a disorienting thrash of blood, teeth, and CHUD-killing. There are whole sequences towards the end of the film when it would be perfectly understandable to forget to breath for minutes at a time.

The physical and emotional effect of seeing The Descent is compounded by how rare that sort of filmgoing experience is when it comes to horror films. And for that reason, The Descent merits a mighty huzzah and kudos.

Score: 9.3

Thursday, January 11, 2007

# 5: United 93

One question dogged United 93 when it came out that led to a number of critics underrating it initially. No one could deny the intense, visceral power of Paul Greengrass's film, the queasy realism and punch-to-the-gut human drama of it, but considering the fact that the movie tends to leave one feeling gutted, drained and wrung out like a soggy gym sock, the question that wasn't immediately answered was: WHY? Yes, the film is a documentary-style recreation of what is believed to have happened on United Flight 93 on September 11th, but really, what's the point of making a movie like that? Why pick at the scabby wound of 9-11 in the interest of a technical experiment. Why put the audience through that emotional meatgrinder?

For a long time after the movie was released, critics in general seemed unable to come up with a satisfying answer to that question, and United 93 just sort of dissapeared from their consciousness. Now, as the season of film-year retrospectives is upon us, the movie is getting some second looks, and for a good reason. United 93 brings something to the saga of 9-11 that it has lacked for the vast majority of Americans: a human scale.

Anyone who wasn't in New York or D.C. on the day of the attacks witnessed the entire event through the distorting prism of television. And the images of that day: the planes smashing into the Twin Towers, billowing explosions, walls of smoke and ash chasing fleeing civilians through the streets, were, to a one, part of the grammar of the Hollywood blockbuster.. It's so well-acknowledged that it's become a cliche. But behind the shop-worn nature of this observation is a central truth: by experiencing 9-11 on the level of the action film, our emotional and intellectual response to it was bound to come from the same place. The frenzy of blood-lust that followed the attacks followed perfectly the script of ever revenge-fueled Bruce Willis flick ever made, and the political context that Bush and company placed the attacks, that as the opening salvo of Global War on Terror, a Clash of Civilizations, gave those feelings an ideological justification. What United 93 accomplishes is to remove trademark symbol from "The Events of 9-11" and remind us that the terrorists were simply humans, not monsters acting out the script of a demonic ideology, and that the people who died that day were simply humans, not martyrs to the cause of liberty. By humanizing 9-11, Greengrass not only makes the audience feel the bewilderment, pain, anger and sorrow of that day over again, he makes them feel it in a new way, with the stark, heart-breaking humanity of the event brought to life. Ironically enough, it took a Hollywood studio to remind people that the September 11th attacks weren't a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

Score: 9.2

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Top Five Films of 2006

I'm only doing a top five list because I honestly haven't seen enough 2006 films yet to feel confident doing a top-ten list. Some of the films that have been getting raves, like The Prestige, Brick and Half Nelson, I'm planning to catch on DVD soon. Pan's Labyrinth is getting the fuck watched out of it as soon as it starts playing in Milwaukee. On the other hand, the only way I could ever conceivably sit down to watch The Queen or Dreamgirls is if viewing them was a scientifically-proven vaccine against all forms of cancer, and even then I still might take my chances.

So, given the limited number of films I've seen, here's my provisional, totally-subject-to-change top five list. Note that as I see more 2006 films, I will update the list as is necessary.

1. Children of Men (I doubt highly that this movie will be moving from the top of this list, even if I see every film on earth released in 2006)

2. The Departed

3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

4. The Descent

5. United 93

Expect lovingly-rendered reviews and justifications for these choices, starting with #5, to pop up over the next few days.

I'm Back...and I Need Work!

So my old blog, Handjobs for Third Stringers, has gone the way of the Members Only jacket, due to the fact that it was mainly a vehicle for ranting at my friends while I lived in Virginia. Once back in Milwaukee, it seemed superfluous. But now that most of my friends HAVE blogs (and one has a blog that he gets PAID TO WRITE), I'm starting to feel a case of blog-envy. These friends of mine have blogs that are devoted to a single topic, be it baseball or music criticism. I've decided to start up a blog made of mainly of movie reviews with the occasional political or cultural essay thrown in for good measure. As such, my next post will be a list of my Top Five films of 2006, followed by a run-down of what I'm looking forward to in '07. Sound like no fun whatsoever? I know!